“‘Because your men explored the land for forty days, you must wander in the wilderness for forty years—a year for each day, suffering the consequences of your sins. Then you will discover what it is like to have me for an enemy.’ I, the Lord, have spoken! I will certainly do these things to every member of the community who has conspired against me. They will be destroyed here in this wilderness, and here they will die!”
The ten men Moses had sent to explore the land—the ones who incited rebellion against the Lord with their bad report—were struck dead with a plague before the Lord. Of the twelve who had explored the land, only Joshua and Caleb remained alive.
When Moses reported the Lord’s words to all the Israelites, the people were filled with grief. Then they got up early the next morning and went to the top of the range of hills. “Let’s go,” they said. “We realize that we have sinned, but now we are ready to enter the land the Lord has promised us.”
But Moses said, “Why are you now disobeying the Lord’s orders to return to the wilderness? It won’t work. Do not go up into the land now. You will only be crushed by your enemies because the Lord is not with you. When you face the Amalekites and Canaanites in battle, you will be slaughtered. The Lord will abandon you because you have abandoned the Lord.”
God’s judgment came in the form the people feared most: dying in the desert. God punished them by making them wander in the desert until they died. Now they wished they had the previous problem of facing the giants and the fortified cities of the Promised Land.
Was this judgment—wandering 40 years in the desert—too harsh? Not compared to the instant death that God first threatened (Numbers 14:12). Instead, God allowed the people to live. God had brought his people to the edge of the Promised Land, just as he said he would. He was ready to give them the rich land, but the people didn’t want it (Numbers 14:1-2). By this time, God had put up with a lot. The people had repeatedly refused to trust and obey him (Numbers 14:22). The whole nation showed contempt for and distrust of God. But God’s punishment was not permanent. In 40 years, a new generation would have a chance to enter Canaan (Joshua 1–3).
When the Israelites realized the consequences of the disobedience, they were suddenly ready to return to God. But God didn’t confuse their admission of guilt with true repentance because he knew their hearts. Sure enough, they soon went their own way again. Sometimes right actions or good intentions come too late. We must not only do what is right, but also do it at the right time and with the right attitude. Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is still the wrong thing. God doesn’t want outward conformity but inward submission to him (Matthew 15:7-9)
What have you been putting off that you know God wants you to do? Surrender your control and ask God for the strength and humility to follow him.